How to Get Voters Off the Fence? With a Soft Touch

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Wharton’s Jonah Berger speaks with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM about what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to persuading voters.

If you want to move a chair, just push it in the direction you want it to go. If you try that approach with people — particularly voters — it probably won’t work so well.

“When you push people, they don’t just go along, they push back,” Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger said. “They think about all of the reasons why they don’t want to do what you’re suggesting, and sometimes they do the exact opposite.”

That’s why the most successful change agents — whether marketers, politicians or moms — know that they cannot accomplish their goals through brute force. Instead, they must be catalysts who pull down barriers, smooth out friction and find more subtle ways of bringing people on the fringes closer to the middle — exactly where they want them to be.

Berger reveals the techniques of powerful persuasion in his book, The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind, which was published earlier this year. It’s based on interviews with business leaders, salespeople, health care professionals, hostage negotiators and others whose jobs often require a softer touch to get their targets to engage in — or disengage from — certain kinds of behaviors and actions. Berger calls them catalysts, a term he borrowed from the field of chemistry, because they have the substance to facilitate change.

“We’ve all had experiences trying to change someone’s mind. Whether it’s our boss’ mind at the office or our colleague’s mind. Whether it’s a customer or client’s mind. Whether it’s our spouse or our child’s mind. And we all know it often doesn’t work,” Berger said during an interview with the Wharton Business Daily radio show on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

“Part of the reason it doesn’t work is we tend to default to the same approach, which is some version of pushing. We think if we just provide more facts, more reasons, more information, people will come around,” he said.

“When you push people, they don’t just go along, they push back.”

The topic is especially relevant during this tension-filled political season. With mere weeks until the presidential election, polls show the pool of undecided voters is so small that a Washington Post columnist described those fence-sitters as “imaginary.” Yet President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are still working hard to get them off the fence.

Bridging the Distance

Berger noted that a colleague of his had done a study that asked Democrats and Republicans to follow members of the opposite parties on Twitter for a period of time. The hypothesis was that being exposed to opposing arguments and information may persuade people to think differently. The result, however, was that they became even more entrenched in their views.

The problem, Berger said, is a barrier called “distance,” which he explores in his book. Essentially, when you ask people to agree with something that is too far removed from what they believe, they will ignore you.

One way to sway undecided voters, Berger said, is to close the gap between where they are and where candidates want them to be. Breaking down the divide into smaller steps makes it easier for people to navigate.

Berger likens it to a “football field of beliefs,” with Democrats in one end zone and Republicans in the other. Research shows there’s a range of information that people are willing to consider. Ask them to move 50 yards in the opposite direction, and they will reject it out of hand. The “zone of acceptance” is a scant five to 10 yards.

“We need to take big change and break it down into smaller chunks … and find a moveable middle,” Berger said. “Asking people to do something completely different from where they are at the moment isn’t going to work. We’ve got to move them in the right direction, by five yards at a time, eventually getting to 50, rather than chucking a Hail Mary pass and hoping that it works.”

Smart marketers implement this principle when they want consumers to accept changes or replacements to a beloved item. Rather than overhaul the design all at once, they fiddle and tweak and revise until consumers are all in.

“Asking people to do something completely different from where they are at the moment isn’t going to work.”

“What great designers do is they chuck in little [stepping] stones along the way,” Berger said. “Now you can hop to one version of the product, and hop to the next version, and hop to the next version, and eventually get to the product they wanted to move you to. It takes a little bit more time, but it makes big change much more likely. Because if we ask for too much, people completely disregard the message.”

Making Use of Data

Politicians and other catalysts today have a distinct advantage over change agents of the past: access to digital data. Information that was unimaginable 10 or 15 years ago is collected in a keystroke and available to those who want to leverage it. That’s been done with demonstrable results by political campaigns from Brexit to Barack Obama.

“Now, we have amazing troves of digital data that give us a good sense about how a wide range of people feel,” Berger said. “Not only do we know who they are and what they’re interested in and how they feel, but we can send them different messages depending on where they are currently.”

But he cautioned that the information harvested from big data must be applied correctly in the pursuit of change. Extract the insight, really listen to the audience and sharply target the message, he said.

“We can’t change everyone’s mind, but we can certainly move a lot of people in the right direction and get some people that might be right around that 50-yard line to switch to our side,” he said.

Berger, whose research focuses on word of mouth and viral marketing, is also the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior.

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